Scroll down a list of great sports coaches. Pick one and know N.C. Central head basketball coach LeVelle Moton has either met or studied them.
He’s always searching for new ways to say the same old things. That’s how you stay fresh as a coach. That’s how you guide a young backcourt – two freshmen and a walk-on – to a second consecutive Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship, as he did last week.
The Eagles (19-15) are now headed back to the NCAA tournament for the second straight season and third time during Moton’s tenure. They play Texas Southern (15-19) in Dayton, Ohio, at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. The school’s third all-time leading scorer has proved his mettle as a coach, even though he says his job is often mistaken as difficult.
“People think it’s a big secret,” he said Tuesday. “The secret is there is no secret.”
Moton, 43, said his success consists of faith, a crazy work ethic and keeping good people around. Also, he said, “Believe in yourself when nobody else does.”
He learned these tenets from other coaches.
Start with his boyhood coach Ron Williams, then add former Enloe High School coach Frank Williams, then mention former N.C. Central coach Greg Jackson. The list continues with Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina’s Roy Williams and goes on and on.
There’s even an NFL football coach in the mix: Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.
“That’s my guy,” Moton has said about any one of them. He’s picked their brains, listened to their stories and soaked in whatever wisdom they’ve had to offer.
Moton’s a gym rat. Always has been. He’s most comfortable hanging around gymnasium seats, surveying the climate and accessing the pros and cons of the environment. He filters out the good air from the dust and debris, adding it to his repertoire.
Moton has an old soul, born from his relationship with his mother, Hattie McDougald, who raised him and his brother in Raleigh. She taught him to listen first then speak. It’s a practice that has served him well as a coach.
For as much as he likes to talk – and he loves his voice – Moton listens. He catches the jewels when Krzyzewski invites him for a chat. He takes note of how smoothly things operate when Williams invites him for practice.
Moton said he rarely talks about coaching X’s and O’s when meeting with coaches. Basketball strategy, he said, is only about 10 percent of the job.
The other 90 percent of coaching is about management. Managing the lives of students and staff, who look to him for guidance for almost every aspect of their lives – business and personal. Players talk to him about their girlfriends and assistant coaches share details about their families. They eat together. They rise at 6 a.m. to run together.
His job requires him to teach and lead.
“I didn’t have to learn how to coach from Coach K, I had to learn how to be a CEO,” he said. “That’s why I need to listen to Coach K. That’s why I need to listen to coach Williams.”
Moton travels to Pennsylvania each summer to attend Steelers pre-season camp. It’s part of his CEO training. He’s become friends with Tomlin, a young, successful NFL coach who led his team to a Super Bowl championship in 2009.
During camp, Moton watches from the sideline as Tomlin exudes poise and patience in managing 93 players and a full staff. He said he’s learned so`much about quality control while visiting camp. Tomlin, he said, has taught him about “saying a lot by saying little,” building a relationship with the media and having a “thick skin.”
He’s taken those lessons back to Durham and implemented them in his system. He’s learned to talk to his players from a place of “imperfection.”
They know, he said, that whatever he shares with them, he’s experienced. Like most coaches, he’s rigid about time, expecting players to show 15 minutes early. He’s relentless in his nagging because he believes they need these values to find successful lives.
Imagine, he said, losing your job because you were late. “Nobody wants to come home and explain that.”
“I want them to be able to take care of their families,” he said. He delivers his message with love, saying players must feel the love to accept his aggressive message. He learned that from Jackson, who once told him that he was going to yell at him every day to send a message to the rest of the team. Jackson yelled with love.
Eventually players buy in, Moton said.
Success has come in the form of victories and overachieving. This season, the Eagles knocked off top-seeded Hampton en route to the MEAC championship. They did so with injuries and youth.
For much of the season, they endured the torture of college basketball under the direction of a demanding coach. Moton expects preparation, toughness and guile, rewards it more than talent.
That’s how he’s advanced as a coach. He wants his players to understand that the world is a tough place and to succeed requires discipline. He’s preparing them for professional lives. He knows most of them will never play professional basketball, so to send them across the graduation stage without hearing the truth would be a crime.
Players text him “Thank you” notes every day.
“I’m real with them,” Moton said. “They don’t get it while they are here. When they leave, they see how real it is.”
Edward G. Robinson III co-authored "The Worst Times Are the Best Times" with N.C. Central coach Levelle Moton. Robinson, a former News & Observer staff writer, is a lecturer at Morgan State University. He lives in Washington, D.C.